Becoming a living dwelling place of God

Comment (English) on ‘Godsbegrip

by Inigo Bocken


Becoming a living dwelling place of God. Titus Brandsma, concerning the meaning of images of the divine and the concept of the divine in modern culture

Inigo Bocken[1]


In July 2017 the 75th anniversary of the death of Titus Brandsma was remembered all over the world. Friend and enemy agree on one thing: there in Dachau, a valiant and courageous way of life ended. But what did Titus Brandsma actually stand for? What was it that made him so dangerous to a wicked, authoritarian occupying force that he had to be swept away, out of the midst of public life, to perish like a piece of garbage in the concentration camp of Dachau? Witnesses from that time in Amersfoort and Dachau tell it how it was – the equanimity and the inner strength of Titus Brandsma remained unbroken, even there in the most engulfing darkness to have characterised our era – the utter hopelessness of the camps. The image of the even tempered Titus Brandsma, living out of a deep inner joy, confronts us with the great wound of European modernity – the extermination camps of the national socialists and communists – the shadow that since that time so guides our culture, and everything that is beautiful and good is questioned in dramatic ways, the great question mark next to everything that over the centuries we had grown to value.

Only God can know the secret of such heroism – the luminous valour of this even tempered joy, which remained focused on the good and the beautiful, even in the unbearable chill of the camps. No person, with hand on heart, can say that he or she would remain standing in the midst of this most radical evil. And little in the earlier life of Titus suggests that he would summon up such heroism at these gates of hell. Since that time and right up to the present day, these camps form the obscure mirror of our culture – It is often said – since these camps there is no more art possible, no poetry, no music, since these camps there is no more theology possible, no philosophy etc… The heroism of Titus exists precisely in the fact that he so radically refuted with his life this sombre cultural pessimism that is still propagated today by so many intellectuals. Even then his life still remained wholly and utterly focused on the joy of the divine, even when all around him he had to witness the meanest possible faces of humanity, ultimately having to endure it himself. His joy was no naïve and utopian optimism that knew nothing of the hopelessness of life. The camps of the 20th century – from Dachau to the Gulag Archipelago are, however, nothing less than the ultimate realised hopelessness. Whoever was there learned to see what the human being is capable of.

Nevertheless, the valour of Titus was not only a fortuitous, by grace bestowed, strength of that moment which only broke through at that time. It is surely very much the continuation of a quest which had already, very much earlier, occupied Titus’ life. Titus’ valour only acquires depth when we view it in this light. It is often forgotten, but Titus Brandsma was professor of philosophy at the still young Catholic University of Nijmegen. Philosophy was for him not just a subsidiary subject, a stepping stone for devoting himself to his great passion – the mystical writers and the spirituality about which their texts speak. Titus Brandsma took his task as a philosopher very seriously – to see through what is playing out in the culture, in society. Philosophising is not ‘being able to recite all that Aristotle or Kant have said and meant’, philosophy should be capable of looking through the illusion of the time, through the pretence of human tittle-tattle, to search for what is really at stake, the hidden drama of things. Philosophers are interested in the truth, independent of the concerns which narrow down the lives of people.

Titus Brandsma clearly formulated this task of philosophy in a programmed lecture, held in June 1932, during the opening of the Week of Philosophy at the Catholic University.[2] It is 1932, the national socialists are, it is true, still not in power, but all over Europe their spirit is already prowling around. The lava of nihilism is already making its way underground to erupt onto the surface less than a decade later. And as a philosopher Titus Brandsma has trained his eye to look at what is being played out in the deeper, at that time still invisible layers of the culture. The excesses of the First World War, that extreme out of control battlefield in the heart of Europe, not only undermined the belief in a God willed order, in an ultimate harmony of the spheres but perhaps also decisively consigned it to the grave. The triumph of technology and of money, the reduction of human relationships to a commodity: it is all and wholly present in those first years after the First World War, and even greater is the unease, the sense that the substantial, which withdraws from the bartering of interests, is getting lost – an unease which in its turn translates into major new ideologies, communism, national socialism and fascism. Also called political religions by a great thinker such as Eric Voegelin.[3] These religions are political because in the rubble of the by-God-willed-order, they seek to bring about, to enforce a new world order. They cannot live with the unpredictability of the mystery and still less with trusting in the unknown God who withdraws from any human control. Where this trust is lacking, there the jack-boots very quickly begin to march, there the camps advance, to eradicate from reality everything which backs away from control. These ‘political religions – Titus Brandsma speaks of world views – desire to be an answer to the general crisis which came to light with the First World War. This crisis meant that everything of value became defenceless and was swept away by the violence of technology or worse still, through the omnipotence of money and the logic attributed to this. Only that which can be traded is still of value.

Inaugural speech

It is in the same period of time that Titus Brandsma makes his famous and still much quoted inaugural speech, on 17 October 1932, also in the Keizer Karel auditorium. A great deal has already been said and written about this speech.[4] There is however, less attention given to the serious political-critical dimensions of this speech. This is not surprising, because in its external form this speech does not appear to be about political relationships. It concerns itself very traditionally with the history of the concept of the divine, a concept that is mediated and advanced by people. Perhaps it does say something about our own condition when we think that this speech has absolutely nothing to do with social relationships, but over such a utopian theme as the concept of the divine, unfortunately in the meantime, a subject matter which is despised by professional philosophers. The philosopher Brandsma has however rumbled that in the design of images of the divine the most human relationships are always at play – which for that matter was the view of his colleague Voegelin, or another of his contemporaries, the catholic philosopher Alois Dempf, who was also expelled from office by the national socialists. Images of the divine say something about the way in which we live, the way we organise society, about the way in which we relate to what is of value, and it therefore really makes a decisive difference which images of the divine we live with. We should not think lightly about this. Brandsma’s speech is then truly exciting when he makes clear that worldly ideologies and frames of reference which absolutely do not speak about ‘God’, nevertheless implicitly employ and postulate images of the divine, and that we can only come up with an answer to the crisis when we also recognise this and lay it bare.

These are familiar, the famous opening lines of this speech:

“Among the many questions which I ask myself, none occupies me more than the riddle, that the evolving human being, proud and spirited in his progress, turns away from God in such great number. It is disconcerting that in our time of such great progress in various area, we face, like an infectious disease, an insidiously spreading violation and denial of God”.[5]

Further on in the text it becomes clear that Titus absolutely does not mean that he is concerned about the increasing secularization. According to Titus Brandsma, the crisis in which we operate, lies deeper and is due to the fact that we have projected those images of the divine outside ourselves and, in doing so, think that we have reality under control. There are the so-called great narratives which explain everything and, under the influence of a number of modern movements such as monism and deism, we have forgotten to ask the question concerning the relationship between our own concrete life and the image of the whole – the image of the divine – which we live by. The concept of the divine (which he differentiates from the image of the divine) concerns precisely this relationship: the way in which we associate with the images in our own lives, how we live with them, how they become part of us and how we become part of these images. The political religions of his time – Brandsma explicitly names communism – are themselves also images of the divine which forget that an eternal and infinite difference exists between the image of the divine and God’s self. We are, so Titus appears to say, no longer in a position to live with relationships which withdraw themselves from control and regulation, from our knowledge. The modern ideologies are not able to connect the individual being with the whole of reality. They direct themselves either to the individual whose interests can be calculated, or to the whole, to which the individual is sacrificed. The crisis of the culture is nothing other than a crisis of the concept of the divine – less because of the fact that there would no longer be any concept of the divine, but precisely because of the fact that our images of the divine are no longer able to unfold in their richness this mysterious connection between the individual and the whole and always emphasise one or the other side.

Whenever Titus Brandsma interests himself so much in mysticism, it is precisely because in the study of mysticism he means to discover a source for the ‘new image of God’ which we, in our time, need to search for, which is still not present, which, as he clearly says, is still to be found. In mysticism, the association with ‘unknowing’ is cultivated – in ourselves and in the reality outside of ourselves, in our association with that which we believed has nothing to do with us, which we also try to exclude. It is out of these traditions – amongst others he cites here Ruusbroec, Nicolas of Cusa, the Modern Devotion – that the new concept of the divine, the concept of the divine of the future, is yet to come. This new concept of the divine is to do with the ‘indwelling of God’ which is so played on in mysticism.

“We must first and foremost see God as the deepest ground of our being, concealed in the innermost part of our nature, but there nevertheless to be seen and contemplated, after first reasoning, clearly to be known, by means of regular disposition towards it, without repeated reasoning and as by intuition, so that we see ourselves in God’s unremitting gaze, and not only venerate Him in our own being but also in everything which exists, first and foremost in our fellow human beings, but then also in nature, in the cosmos, omnipresent and pervading everything with the work of his hands. This indwelling and inworking of God should not only be the object of intuition, but reveal itself in our lives, finding expression in our words and deeds, emanating out of the whole of our being and all that we do”.[6]

Importance for our time

Mysticism is important not so much because it speaks of God – that is no great feat, and we have seen that Titus is of the opinion that even ways of thinking which eventually lead us to rack and ruin, explicitly or implicitly speak of God. Especially important is the way in which we [begin to] see God, in our actions and in the world itself. Mysticism is important because it helps us to find the direction through which we formulate a new image of the divine, which elevates ourselves and our time above ourselves ̶ puts us in a position ourselves to transcend our own nature and our own individuality without causing us to get lost in an abstract whole. Mysticism is not just becoming one with the divine but is the dialogical events between myself and the inexhaustible richness of reality, in mysticism we find the points of departure for seeing reality emanating in everything which exists. This is a process which takes place in ourselves, but which does not remain restricted to our subjectivity, precisely because it is a process which enables us to grow beyond ourselves. To quote Cusa’s words, to let reality itself emanate [in] ourselves as a micro-cosmos – ‘to emanate’ is a word which, strikingly enough, one often comes across in the texts of Titus. Through my own growth, I also allow the whole of reality itself to grow, in my own radiance, all reality radiates. But likewise: in my own diminishment, I also diminish the whole of reality.

This is the reason why we need to study the mystical tradition – the study of mysticism is an indispensable part of engaging with the crisis in which modern culture finds itself enmeshed, and why it is that the camps of Dachau and the Gulag are only the top of the iceberg. Therein we once again learn to see ourselves in relation to the whole, and therein we learn that our own deepest essence is endless with possibility and infinitely bound up with the whole, without getting lost in it.

In this is perhaps also the subject matter about which Titus, in all his valour, still has something to say to us today. The spiritual and cultural crisis, which Titus already sensed early in the 1930s, was not over with the military defeat of one of the political religions and also not over with the collapse of communism. To this very day it once more comes to light in forms of fundamentalism and populism – which in themselves are also not the cause of the crisis but crude responses to our modern incapacity to see ourselves as the dwelling place of the divine. This idealistic crudeness, as history enables us to see, and as Titus already knew, is dangerous. He himself became the victim of it. Democratic forms of society only make sense, only have a chance of success when, from out of their own personal position, citizens are still able to catch sight of the whole, when their own ‘I’ becomes a living dwelling place for divine radiation: thus mysticism as the centre of a new ecology, as this is also encountered in the encyclical Laudato Sí – not only as a new way of associating with nature, but rather as, once again, learning to see our individuality within the whole, our life as a dwelling place for the unknown God.

Titus enables us to see that secular ways of thinking and forms of society are also often defined by implicit images of the divine and ways of addressing the divine – which might be, for example, on the altar of the stock exchange through which these days so much is sacrificed of what, over the centuries, was once offered as spiritual wealth, or through political correctness which purports to know how reality works. From the perspective of Titus’ thinking, these are implicitly images of the divine, but they are images which forget that with everyone– no matter how small and crude – reality begins anew [and] that each person can and must take on their own responsibility for being a dwelling place of the divine. Titus was always convinced of this – that we never cease to be this dwelling place, not even in the chill of the camps. Because of this, as a highly respected professor and rector, he traversed town and country and in the most insignificant public meeting places taught people how to reflect for themselves – to learn to formulate their own living image of the divine and, as the mystical writers demonstrate, to do this out of the concrete reality of life, learning to see it emanating in every fibre, in every detail of reality.

This is also why the Institute, which has existed for nearly 50 years, bears his name and over and over again understands its assignment as proceeding from the study of mysticism. This is not so much with the aim of becoming acquainted with a rich tradition from the historical perspective; it is especially concerned with teaching people themselves to reflect, also in the midst of society, to accompany them to find their image of the divine in this sense, to become themselves [an] image of God. This is a highly political undertaking, not so much because it is concerned with explicitly political relationships but because it touches the deeper layers of a crisis, in which our society finds itself – from Titus we can find the courage – also in times which appear dark – to learn to see even in the smallest of things, the divine radiance of reality, by becoming radiant ourselves.


  1. Translation of: Inigo Bocken, ‘Levende woonplaats van God te worden. Titus Brandsma over de betekenis van godsbeelden en godsbegrip in de modern cultuur ’, in: Anne-Marie Bos (ed), Titus Brandsma. Spiritualiteit dichtbij in veertien teksten, Adveniat, Baarn 2018, 23-31.
  2. Titus Brandsma, ‘Het begrip Wijsbegeerte’ in: Titus Brandsma a.o., 1e Nijmeegse philosophische week, Nijmegen-Utrecht 1932, p. 3-16, § 3.
  3. Eric Voegelin, Die politische Religionen, Stockholm 1939.
  4. See, for example: Kees Waaijman and Frans Maas, De spiritualiteit van Titus Brandsma. Hoe de tijd ons Godsbegrip bepaalt, Kampen 2008.
  5. Titus Brandsma, Godsbegrip, Nijmegen-Utrecht 1932, p. 3.
  6. Titus Brandsma, Godsbegrip, p. 26.


Translated from the Dutch by Susan Verkerk-Wheatley and Anne-Marie Bos, September 2018

© Titus Brandsma Instituut 2019